The Role of Audio

Security systems require a robust solution to reduce crimes

Buildings – they are the places where we live, work and play.

According to the Energy Information Administration, as of 2018 there were 5.9 million U.S. commercial buildings and facilities with a total of 97 billion square feet. That’s an increase of 6% in number of buildings and 11% in square footage in just six years, compared to the department’s Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), last conducted in 2012.

Every building has a life of its own. As it ages, the building and its surroundings change with the tenants, owners and building requirements. Security and safety issues change, as well.

Every business and facility must confront three major workplace security issues – employee and visitor safety, securing assets, and the protection of data and other valuable information.

Those security issues require a robust physical security system to reduce the opportunity for physical damage, robbery, theft, and other crimes.

The History of Building Security

It is important to understand the history of building security and the key role of intercoms throughout each stage, in order to effectively mitigate risks and keep facilities safe. Early office buildings often contained a bank, making them an attractive target for crime. One of the earliest building security strategies included a security guard who roamed the building, checking doors and performing other tasks. That security guard sent the message “I am here, and you are all safe.”

The desire for banks to have standalone locations, and the demand for retail stores, pushed bank locations out of office buildings. Yet, security still existed, via elevator operators, who were the eyes, ears, mouths, hands and arms of the building. They provided security by their presence and knowledge of the building.

Weeks after World War II, the elevator (or lift) operators went on strike in New York City, and that paved the way for automatic elevators, which in turn, eliminated the need for elevator operators.

Emergency communications (via the intercom) was added to each automatic elevator, along with an emergency stop button. Users began to trust the automated elevator, knowing that help could be requested through an intercom call or alarm, and that they could be heard.

The Reception Desk

The next important evolution of building security was the introduction of reception and security desks, which still required a person to be present and to interact with visitors. The person(s) who sat at the desk became the building gatekeeper and the new “bank guard,” and they verified a person’s identity and their level of access.

Door control increasingly became important, and preliminary policies involved door locks and large keychains with dozens of keys. This addressed facility management, but a main challenge existed in verifying a person’s access level. An ID card worked well, but access enforcement relied too much on human judgement. It was easy to circumvent with a friendly excuse, “I lost my ID card; please let me in.”

Here, the intercom allowed security teams to communicate with and assist a visitor or employee who had trouble with their ID card. That person could contact security via the intercom and communicate with them, asking for and receiving assistance.

Today, building security is a sophisticated risk management system that has extended to outside of the immediate building, primarily driven by multiple occupancy, the expansion of corporate campuses, and the inclusion of parking and other amenities. And once again, intercom solutions are part of that ecosystem.

Surveillance and asset protection have grown to include not only the exterior of the building, but in many cases, just beyond the immediate fence-line at the perimeter of a property. This is because the physical perimeter is constantly being pushed out farther. The sooner security teams can interact with visitors, the better.

The same technological and automation drivers that allowed for security and people management inside the building have been applied to the exterior and perimeter security roles – gate controls are increasingly automated, and surveillance has gone from people on patrol to video and audio surveillance.

Yet, no matter what security technology is in place, the need for human intervention and interaction through voice always remains.

The Importance of Voice

Effective risk management for a facility includes:

  • Keeping employees and visitors safe.
  • Verifying who enters the premises.
  • Protecting assets against vandalism and crime.
  • Offering visitors assistance, so they feel welcome and find their way.
  • Enabling reduced cost of ownership and efficient management of human resources.

All those tasks can only be accomplished by incorporating a three-component enterprise security system, which comprises IP video, access control and high-definition voice working together.

Video alone is a reactive system. A security guard sees something happen and sends someone to respond. By the time that person does respond, the event may be over. Security is simply left with a record of the event.

Identity management can be thought of as the brains of a security system because it holds data and permissions. It can either keep someone out or invite them in depending upon the data that’s available at the time.

Audio brings video and identity management together, and the result is a well-rounded and responsive system that offers actionable insight into potential physical breaches.

Communication is Critical to Secure Buildings

Think about how people hear, are heard, and are understood. From a young age, people have been trained to respond to a voice or a sound. How many times have you turned your head, or paused, when you heard a fire alarm go off? How often have you seen someone gesturing at you, to get your attention, but you cannot hear them? It is difficult to discern what that individual is trying to tell you if you cannot understand them.

Audio and voice add information to a situation so that you can determine what someone is trying to communicate. In a safety situation, audio can also detect noises, such as breaking glass or other sounds that are not within direct view of a video camera.

Audio can also prevent harmful situations from happening. Someone waving at you to stop walking into a room may be misconstrued as them simply saying hello. Only their voice can help you to understand that what they really mean is “Stop! Don’t go in there.”

A secondary verification is another thing that audio can provide. For example, when a security guard sees something via video surveillance, no matter how remote, all they have to do is push a button on an intercom solution and talk. If that person is lost or simply needs assistance, security can talk to them and provide directions and reassurance. On the other hand, if that person has ill intent, the security officer can interact and even warn them they are being watched and heard. Often, once someone hears a voice and they know they’re being watched; they are more likely to stop and leave the scene.

Facility security has come a long way from elevator operators and reception desks. Security technology has changed, along with the areas that need protection, but it has always included communication and voice. The past days of a bank guard announcing with their presence, “I am here, and you are all safe,” is present today, but in the form of intercom solutions and audio, working together with video surveillance and access control, to deliver an interactive and effective solution that mitigates security and safety risks.

This article originally appeared in the May / June 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.


  • An Annual Security Check-up

    Just like going to the doctor for your annual health check-ups; the same holds true for schools who need to go through an extensive security check-up annually. The main reason is to ensure they are fully prepared for any type of emergency that arises on school grounds. Read Now

  • High Schools Need Additional Security for Basketball Games

    Now that football season has ended, it is time to move indoors and watch your favorite basketball teams compete. The presence of a large number of enthusiastic fans alone can create a variety of security challenges, but factor in drugs, alcohol, weapons, and gangs at the gymnasiums, and you could be looking at a recipe for disaster. Read Now

  • Student Centered Solutions

    In early 2023, John Diemer Elementary School, located in an east Kansas suburb, was transformed into a facility that embodies the idea that learning happens everywhere. The new facilities feature innovative classroom designs that balance flexibility and security—a plan that had been developed collaboratively between the architects and project owners. Read Now

  • Three Killed in Shooting at UNLV, Suspect Also Dead

    Three people were killed and another injured in a shooting at UNLV Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas. The suspected gunman was killed in a shootout with law enforcement. Read Now